Tom Tiddler’s ground is the name of a children’s game in which one of the players is Tom Tiddler, his territory being marked by a line drawn on the ground; the other players try to encroach on this area, crying “We’re on Tom Tiddler’s ground, picking up gold and silver”; they are chased by Tom Tiddler, the first, or sometimes the last, caught taking his place. This game was first mentioned as Tom Tickler’s ground in Suffolk words and phrases; or, an attempt to collect the lingual localisms of that county (London, 1823), by the writer on Hindu mythology Edward Moor (1771-1848).
The Salisbury and Winchester Journal of 8th November 1841 published the following paragraph about Alexander McLeod (1796-1871), a Scottish-Canadian arrested by the United States and charged with the murder of the sailor killed in the sinking of the American steamboat Caroline, which had supplied rebels with arms during an insurrection against the government of the British colony of Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) in December 1837; however, the responsibility of the action taken against the Caroline lay with Great Britain, not with McLeod himself:
The acquittal of M‘Leod, notwithstanding the great aim of the “Hunters” was to “swear him to the gallows,” is the great event in the Foreign news of the week; and we cannot refrain from congratulating our readers on so auspicious a result of the legal proceedings which had been taken against him. But the affair might have ended very differently; and the question returns, had the Americans any right, under the law of nations, to bring to trial a man alleged to have been engaged in an action the responsibility of which had been taken by his own Government? It was maintained for the prosecution, that, although the steamer may have formed part of the hostile force, yet, every time she retreated within the American boundary, she lost that character, and became a friendly vessel! The Spectator cleverly satirises this queer doctrine as a deadly burlesque of the child’s game, “Tom Tiddler’s ground.”—Bath Gazette.
On 14th June 1848, The Morning Chronicle (London) reacted to “a rather formidable-looking string of accusations against this journal, preferred yesterday evening by certain Chartist orators”:
If Chartist meetings are to tolerate men who designate “theology” as “stuff,” “religion” as “useless,” and who couple the name of “Heaven” with such ribaldry as “Tom Tiddler’s ground,” they must be prepared to find the very word “Chartism” an offence to the ears of a moral and religious community.
This paragraph from The Leicestershire Mercury (Leicester, Leicestershire) of 27th January 1849 shows how Tom Tiddler’s ground came to be used figuratively in the sense of a source of easy money or profit:
Latest News from the Californian Gold Region.—An American gentleman, partner in one of the principal New York houses doing trade with Leicester, has visited this town within the last day or two, and informed a friend of ours that his partner had written to him to say that the latest accounts from California were quite confirmatory of the previous intelligence as to the extent and abundance of the gold district, and that it was fully anticipated the extra supply of gold thus sent into the market must before long exercise a considerable influence upon prices both in America and England. The United States Government was wisely exercising caution as to the publication of the reports transmitted to them, for fear of increasing the anxiety of the citizens to leave their regular occupations in order to be off to the Californian “Tom Tiddler’s ground—picking up gold and silver.” One solid lump of gold, this gentleman further stated, had been picked which weighed two hundred and thirty pounds, and was estimated to be sufficient to coin ten thousand sovereigns!
The following is from The Advocate or Irish Industrial Journal (Dublin, Ireland) of 31st December 1851:
IRISH INDUSTRIAL RESOURCES—THE TRUE TOM TIDDLER’S GROUND
We all remember Tom Tiddler’s Ground, upon which, in our childhood, we used to poach, “picking up gold and silver.” At page three hundred and fifty of our second, and at page five hundred and ninety-five of our third volume, it will be found that we have called attention to the wealth derivable from chemical products obtained out of peat. As a source of wealth, the Irish bogs are almost inexhaustible.
In an article about the inquiries made by the General Board of Health into the state of burial grounds, published in The Globe (London) of 23rd August 1849, the phrase appears to mean exclusive territory:
Such being the law, of course the metropolitan churchyards must still remain the burial grounds of the paupers and artisans dying in London. For though by a legal figment the Cemetery Company is said to pay the above funeral imposts, of course the amount is included in the sum charged by the company for interment, and so in plain truth the tax falls upon the relatives or friends of the deceased. This extra charge therefore must keep the suburban burial grounds as exclusive as “Tom Tiddler’s Ground’’ to the poor man.
The phrase means no man’s land in this paragraph from The Standard (London) of 12th September 1851:
New Islington Bazaar.—Upon a piece of waste land to the north of the turnpike at Islington, which was a sort of Tom Tiddler’s ground, the receptacle of filth and the favourite resort of the idle and depraved, has been erected a tasteful and extensive structure which is already fulfilling the active duties of a bazaar, and in its character approaches closely to the oriental original.
On 16th May 1874, The Derbyshire Courier (Chesterfield, Derbyshire) reported the death of James Lucas (1813-74), who inspired Mr. Mopes the Hermit in Tom Tiddler’s Ground, the Christmas number of All the Year Round for 1861, by the English novelist Charles Dickens (1812-70), in collaboration with Charles Allston Collins (1828-73), Amelia B. Edwards (1831-92), William Wilkie Collins (1824-89) and John Berwick Harwood (1828-99):
HERMITS.—In these matter-of-fact days of go-a-head-ism a recluse has become a curiosity, if not all but an extinct animal. I say nearly all but extinct, for one of these scarce individuals died a few weeks ago near to Hitchin. His name was Lucas; he was a misanthrope. On the death of his mother, a quarter of a century ago, he secluded himself from the world, and during that time lived literally in sackcloth and ashes, never wearing any clothes beyond a blanket, and totally ignoring the use of soap and water. Some years ago the late Charles Dickens paid this notorious character a visit, and immortalised him in his “Tom Tiddler’s Ground.” For the past few years the hermit had been obliged to keep men to guard his premises, and protect him from the numerous persons who continually bothered him. Although be excluded himself from the gentry and well-to-do classes, he always allowed tramps to see him, and rarely let them go without a few coppers. A keeper passing by was unable to make him hear, which induced him to send for the police superintendent, who had the door forced open, and on the ground floor, in the room where Charles Dickens interviewed him, was found the hermit, quite insensible, and grovelling in the ashes on the floor. He was at once removed in a cart to the farm of Mr. Chapman, close by. He never regained consciousness, however. The house was found in a most dilapidated condition; the pictures had dropped from the walls, and the chairs and tables had fallen victims to decay and the falling in of part of the roof. Nothing had been disturbed in the house since the death of his mother twenty-five years ago. The doors were at once barred, and policemen guarded the premises.
“Tom Tiddler’s Ground” – Elmwood House, near Stevenage, occupied for five-and-twenty years by James Lucas, the hermit
illustration from The Graphic (London) – 16th May 1874